Wednesday 23 January 2013

Here, they don't have to be prisoners...

There was an interesting account by Ros Coward in The Guardian 15th January 2013 of one of the Prison Reading Groups. We quote from it below.
'The reading group in Wandsworth jail offers offenders a welcome escape from their restricted lives
Wandsworth prison is an ominous place with its dark brickwork, iconic gates and perimeter walls topped by billowing rolls of barbed wire. The prison library, however, looks a bit like a comfy community library.
I'm here at the invitation of academics Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey who have been running volunteer reading groups in Wandsworth and other prisons for the last 13 years. Recent policy has prioritised vocational qualifications for prisoners. But Turvey sees the groups as equally vital. "The majority of prisoners have had negative experiences of school and are wary of formal education in prison," she says. "We're helping prisoners develop skills they need before they can even think about qualifications."
Tonight, Turvey and Niamh Fahey, the assistant librarian, are running a group for 14 high-security prisoners. Fahey unlocks them from the individual cells they have been in since 5pm the previous evening. They bring with them their book of the week, Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English.
Turvey invites responses from the group. John, older and educated, gives a precis. "The book is depressing," he says. "This kid comes to England to find a quieter life but ends up in worse turmoil."
Stephen, a slight young man, says he found it compelling and redolent of the Damilola Taylor case. "The descriptions of the estate made me laugh. They were just like where I live. But it wasn't always easy to tell who was speaking."
This theme is taken up by an exceptionally well-spoken young man. Although he had "never experienced the world of gangs", he found the way the boy had to hide behind a tough facade illuminating. But he disliked the "false naivety" of the protagonist. A bespectacled middle-aged man concurs. "I couldn't work the boy out. He was integrated well enough to have picked up the slang, but at other moments he seems totally naive, as if he's just off the boat." Pause. "If you'll forgive the expression."
A discussion breaks out about the use of patois in the book. "I'm from up north," says one, "and I found it excluding." "Well, I'm from the north too," says John, a Geordie, "but I didn't have so much difficulty. That's because I've had several black cellmates." Paul, who is black, says he could identify with how people got caught up in these gangs but wasn't engaged by the book. "Personally, I didn't like it, " says Omar, "even though it was about someone struggling to fit in. I couldn't follow the narrative. It was more like a series of short stories."
I look round the group, wondering how they had ended up here. "It's something we never ask ourselves," says Turvey. "For one hour in these groups they don't have to be prisoners, they can be readers."
A theme emerges. They are fed up with what they call "boy books", especially those connected to news stories. "The Damilola case was tragic," says John, "but we've reached saturation point with all these plays and books. Maybe it's just because we're in prison, but it seems to get thrown in your face."
Peter agrees. "Books like these don't take you out of yourself," he says. "It's the whole business of books these days, they are so lightweight. I think the authors are running out of ideas. So many are based on historical fact rather than what you'd imagine an author should take inspiration from. If they were to write about a couple of people who went into the woods and had a Socratic dialogue, that wouldn't be so popular. They are only interested in what's in the news. But for this to get on the Booker shortlist! I mean, compare this with Midnight's Children, how could you ever put them in the same category?"
The rest of the group listens respectfully. "One of our only rules," says Sarah, "is they should wait their turn. But it's never enforced because it never arises. They always listen to each other's opinion."
Peter says he keeps coming "because it's an opportunity to talk about something other than crime or sport or whatever you talk about in the cell, which tends to be very matter-of-fact. Fabio Capello [former England football manager] says you only need 200 words to get by in English football. Well, you only need 100 in prison."
"You're right," says Stephen, "all the conversations in prison are just banal. No one has a standpoint. Here, you can have an argument and hear other people's point of view."
"It's lovely to see people relax," says Fahey, the librarian, who says it is her favourite part of the job. "The prison is full of tension. But there's never any friction here. That's quite special. It's an oasis."
The skills that emerge in reading groups, says Hartley, are respect for others' opinions, learning to express oneself, and overcoming aggression. "Listening to each other's opinions," says Hartley, "is about learning you can disagree but remain friends. All sorts of arguments come out from a book or character. That's what literature is for."
Turvey and Hartley hope more prison authorities will recognise the value of their groups in promoting those all-important "soft skills". But their motivation clearly goes deeper. "I love it," says Hartley. "It gives me such a buzz. This is something which matters to them, so it matters to me."'
Give a Book is delighted to be supporting these groups. Now go back to the Give a Book Home Page.

Monday 14 January 2013

How reading Shakespeare lights up your life.

Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of Shakespeare and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection. This fascinating and important new study  is described in an article in The Telegraph quoted below.
'Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and others. They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words. Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
Scientists were able to study the brain activity as it responded to each word and record how it “lit up” as the readers encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure. This “lighting up” of the mind lasts longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear, encouraging further reading.
The research also found that reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read. The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books.
Professor Philip Davis,  who has worked on the study with the university’s magnetic resonance centre, will tell a conference this week: “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain. The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.”
In the first part of the research, the brain activity of 30 volunteers was monitored as they read passages from Shakespeare plays, including King Lear, Othello, Coriolanus and Macbeth, and again as they read the text rewritten in simpler form. While reading the plain text, normal levels of electrical activity were displayed in their brains. When they read Shakespeare, however, the levels of activity “jumped” because of his use of unfamiliar words.
In one example, volunteers read a line from King Lear: “A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded”. They then read a simpler version: “A father and a gracious aged man: him you have enraged.” Shakespeare’s use of the adjective “mad” as a verb sparked a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose.
The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.
Working with psychologists at the university, the next phase of the research is looking at the extent to which poetry can provide therapeutic benefit, using the work of, among others William Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
Volunteers' brains have been scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: “She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me.”
Four “translated” lines were also provided: “She lived a lonely life in the country, and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss.” The first version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.
The brain shows minimal activity when the text is translated into 'modern' prose.
Intense activity is this area of the brain suggests that the poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences in light of what they read.
“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,” said Professor Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield next week. “This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”
Professor Davis hopes to scan the brains of volunteers reading Charles Dickens to test if revisions the writer made to his prose spark greater brain activity than the original text.
He is also working with the charity The Reader Organisation to establish reading aloud groups in GP drop-in centres, care homes, prisons, libraries, schools and mother and toddler groups.
Joint research with University College London will also study the effects of reading in dementia sufferers.
An earlier article by Prof. Davis  The Shakespeared Brain  concludes: "In that case Shakespeare's art would be no more and no less than the supreme example of a mobile, creative and adaptive human capacity, in deep relation between brain and language. It makes new combinations, creates new networks, with changed circuitry and added levels, layers and overlaps. And all the time it works like the cry of ‘action’ on a film-set, by sudden peaks of activity and excitement dramatically breaking through into consciousness. It makes for what William James said of mind in his Principles of Psychology, ‘a theatre of simultaneous possibilities’. This could be a new beginning to thinking about reading and mental changes."'
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Tuesday 8 January 2013

Report from Prison Reading Group

We're delighted that we'll be getting regular reports from the Prison Reading Groups that we're supporting.  Here's the first, from HMP Bullingdon on George Orwell's 1984.
"The main character is Winston Smith, a civil servant who lives alone in a world where Big Brother – the state – rigidly controls everything: the laws, the media, everything. Every room in every building has a telescreen that can simultaneously transmit and receive. And nothing, not even a wink, is ever missed.
Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth requires him to falsify historical documents on orders from BB. When the Ministry of Plenty decides to reduce the chocolate ration from 30g to 25g per week, Winston has to alter the old records and newspaper articles to make it look like the original ration was only ever 20g. Now the Ministry can claim it has INCREASED the allowance!
Winston is plagued by the lies but knows that even if anybody else felt as he does, they could never show it. Dissent is not tolerated by BB, and people are sometimes removed and never seen again.
Citizens are expected to love BB and are required to attend a regular ‘Two Minute Hate’, a message from the revolutionary leader broadcast to an audience over a giant telescreen. It includes shots of the enemy of the moment and people are encouraged to boo and hiss at the screen. Strangely, even Winston feels the urge to join in.
But it’s here too that Winston meets Julia, the girl he falls in love with, and O’Brien, who reveals himself as an enemy to BB. He also gives Winston a copy of ‘the book’, which denounces the power politics of the state.
Both love and the book turn out to be powerful and dangerous and Winston pays a heavy price.
This strange and exciting new life comes crashing down on Winston when the Thought Police smash their way into the secret room and drag him behind the impenetrable walls of the Ministry of Love for interrogation. It’s here that he is forced to face his greatest fear: ROOM 101
The book is thought-provoking. It’s also many different things to different people. It’s a love story, but also a story of betrayal on so many levels. It raises questions of freedom, political ideology and the duty of both the state and its citizens.
They say that every man has a breaking point. Does Winston live or die? Does he get the girl? Who wins? I’m not going to tell you that. But if it were me: would I roll over? Would I be a sheep? Or would I die fighting? The answer is: BAA!
But maybe that’s just me...the power of the state is scary.
Some members thought they’d read it before but then realised it was just because so much of the book is so familiar – Big Brother, Room 101, the power of surveillance. In any case it created a lively debate:
• This book becomes more relevant with each passing year • I’m young and when I read it on my own it didn’t seem relevant to me. I didn’t get past page 20. But listening to you lot talking, I’m keen to try it again.
• Was Julia (the girl) an agent provocateur or did she really love Winston? • Does this book warn us against communism?
And the one that summed it up for our group: • This book is a modern classic and a must read!"
The Bullingdon group is part of the Prison Reading Groups project. And this report also appeared in Inside Time January 2013.
Thanks for sending it. We love to hear from you.
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